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In the T2: Judgement Day-style techno-battle for punk rock’s soul, the machines are winning. At least that’s how it seems listening to Brooklyn’s These Are Powers. On its ’07 debut, Terrific Seasons, the trio was still pounding out wiry post-punk rhythms with fairly conventional gear—bass, guitar, a drum kit. But over the last couple of years, These Are Powers has embraced the future to its very bosom. Bassist Pat Noecker and guitarist Anna Barrie process their instruments though a labyrinth of effects pedals, until you can’t be sure the noises you’re hearing originated with a guitar. Drummer Bill Salas has ditched acoustic percussion for sampler-driven trigger pads. But Noecker argues that his band, who are performing this evening at Velvet Lounge, is still more man than machine. He recently spoke with Washington City Paper about samplers, electronics, and how you can still break a sweat when you’re smashing plastic.
These Are Powers w/ Exactly, Sick Weapons @ Velvet Lounge $8, 9 pm 915 U Street NW
Washington City Paper: The last time I saw you play (at Civilian Arts Project) you were lugging around a giant PA system. Is that something you’re still packing?
Pat Noecker: Yeah, we still carry our own PA. There are no more acoustic drums in the band and Anna’s setup has changed, so we carry the PA for quality assurance on monitoring the electronics. We just want to make sure we don’t have to rely on anybody else to make our show good. And if we can [rely on somebody else], that’s even better.
WCP: Is it useful in terms of setting up in offbeat/non-traditional spaces?
PN: Yeah, absolutely. It’s a really great investment; I highly recommend it for any band incorporating electronics.
WCP: You mention that you’ve given up entirely on live drums. Why is that?
PN: Yeah, no more live drums. Now it’s just samplers and live electronics. The acoustic drums, they just don’t hold up sonically to what you can do electronically. You could argue its more exciting to watch somebody play a live kit. But I think it’s still exciting to watch Bill (Salas) play the sampler pads. WCP: You don’t think that bashing on a piece of rubber loses some of the live energy and presence of a real kit?
PN: Bill’s still playing an instrument, it’s just that the sounds he’s making aren’t what you’re used to hearing from a drummer. He’ll still be breaking sweats and shit. It’s amazing to watch somebody sit behind a kit and work it, but a sampler can be cool, too. What you’re seeing gets dislodged from what you’re hearing.
WCP: On your earlier records, you guys used a pretty standard rock set-up (guitar/bass/drums). What made you guys want to get deeper into using electronics?
PN: Just being interested in the idea of collage within pop songs. For us, it’s like, we appreciate art and want to be able to do what painters and collage artists do. Music sort of lags behind visual art—painters were pretty far ahead of musicians on a lot of levels. So with electronics, I get to use certain [visual] art-inspired techniques.
WCP: Do you ever feel like relying on samplers and electronics can impede on spontaneity in your live show?
PN: The tools we choose to use are geared towards playing live. We play them manually—we don’t just press play. We’re not midi-synched—we’re not playing along to a set tempo—so there’s more room for error and spontaneity.
It’s up to us how spontaneous we want to be, it’s not up to the machine. That’s something that’s really important to note for this debate between purity and electronics in music or whatever—you’re still playing the machine, the machine is not playing you.
WCP: But electronics—stuff like Ableton, samplers, etc—tend to suggest certain methods of composition, just through how they’re designed. Like, a software like Ableton pushes you toward loop-based writing. Do you feel like your equipment set-up sort of determines what kind of art you eventually produce with it? Is the machine, in some sense, playing you?
PN: Yeah, but I think in general there’s lots of formative situations and circumstances like that in any art form. When blues musicians left the South their music changed because they couldn’t bring their pianos. In regards to interface…I’m playing the bass, but it’s a prepared bass. I came up with my own system. I deformed the interface of the bass as it is. It definitely creates a style—I just play with my thumb, no other fingers.
WCP: You guys are about to put out a new EP (World Class Peoples/Candyman). But why put out an EP? Isn’t modern music distribution—the internet, iTunes—geared towards singles and albums? What chance do four or five songs stand in the world anymore? What good is the EP format these days?
PN: Well it’s not so much a choice. It’s just how it happened. We had these three songs we wanted to put out in the world and wanted people to remix them for us. Originally we would have called it a 12” single. After everything was put together, it was five pieces of music. I mean, it fits in iTunes and then it’s heavily packaged it on vinyl side—180 gram red vinyl with a homemade sculpture. The EP as a format doesn’t have much to do with it. We just do what we have to do—we try to not really worry about trends too much.